Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Plenert’

Herzsprung
When the Berlin Wall finally came down, East Germans danced for joy in the streets. No more Stasi, no more food shortages, no more travel restrictions, and no more fiddling with their Trabis to get the damned things started. At the time, most people in East Germany were glad to see the backside of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). This was reflected in the polls when the SED (now rebranded as the Party of Democratic Socialism) was trounced in the East German general election in March of 1990. A few months later, the new Volkskammer voted to approve the reunification of Germany, much to the dismay of Margaret Thatcher, who actively petitioned against it. François Mitterrand wasn’t crazy about reunification either, but quickly saw the inevitability of it. Things were looking up—or so the East Germans thought. Within a year, many East Germans would be regretting their votes. Factories and businesses were taken over by Western conglomerates that immediately started laying off as many people as they could. Young people found it difficult to get work because the West Germans, who were now in control, had low opinions of East Germans, viewing them as problematic because they weren’t willing to work for starvation wages. They preferred to hire foreign workers to do the jobs instead, further exacerbating the mounting tensions in the East.

Without the safety nets provided by the state, the young people in East Germany were in dire straits, and were wondering what happened to their country when the Nazis started arriving from Bavaria and America, ready to provide easy answers for the local youths. Kids on both sides of the border were often woefully ignorant of what happened in Germany during World War II, but none more so than the East Germans, where the attitude was, “We got rid of them, so we don’t really need to talk about it anymore—that’s a West German problem!” While it’s true that several high-ranking Nazis were able to get back into government in West Germany, at least the Nazis were stigmatized in the Bundesrepublik, which certainly helped stem their spread. East German kids were more susceptible to the simplistic, populist claptrap spouted by groups such as the German People’s Union (Deutsche Volksunion, DVU) and the National Democratic Party (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands, NPD) of Germany.1

Herzsprung was the first and last East German film to tackle this subject. The first because prior to the fall of the Wall it simply wasn’t an issue—anyone spouting far-right rhetoric in the GDR would have found the Stasi crawling all over them like a bad case of bedbugs. The last because DEFA’s days were numbered. DEFA would only make six more films before closing up shop.

Herzsprung

Herzsprung takes place in a small town of the same name that sits on the A24 highway just south of Wittstock. The proverbial wide spot in the road. The film follows the adventures and misadventures of a woman named Johanna (Claudia Geisler) as she tries to navigate the changes occurring in her village. The film starts with the termination of her job working in a factory kitchen. It looks like a pretty crummy job, but since her husband Jan had lost his job months earlier, thanks to the closing of the agriculture cooperatives, it meant there would be no money coming in. Unable to find work, Jan has sunken into a state of self-pity and alcoholism, and is becoming physically abusive. After Jan commits suicide, Johanna starts to take up with a stranger (Nino Sandow) who recently arrived in town. He’s a happy-go-lucky guy who also happens to be black. As you can imagine, the local Nazi punks aren’t too pleased to see Johanna hanging around with this guy, especially a local called “Soljanka” (Ben Becker), who has a crush on Johanna. In German, Herzsprung also means “heartbreak,” so, as you can probably guess, things don’t end well for anybody.2

Herzsprung is directed by Helke Misselwitz from her own script. Misselwitz is better known for her documentaries, and in particular Winter Adé, a powerful film that looks at the lives and failed dreams of women across East Germany. Misselwitz brings her documentary background to this film, with hand-held cameras and shots of peripheral characters to create a sense of place. Nonetheless, she also recognizes the freedom a feature film gives you to compose scenes, and uses this to create powerful images, such as the scene of Johanna fleeing the burning roadside stand.

Like Misselwitz, Cinematographer Thomas Plenert was part of DEFA’s Nachwuchsgeneration (the baby boomers, essentially), the last generation of filmmakers and technicians in East Germany. Also like Misselwitz, he comes from a documentary background. Here he gets to push the limits of what you can do with a camera, sometimes pushing it over the edge. He’s not afraid to let night scenes stay in inky darkness. The use of color is interesting, especially in the final scene, and in the nightclub scenes, where the use of color approaches the work of Luciano Tovoli in Dario Argento’s Suspiria.

Herzsprung

Claudia Geisler is well-cast as Johanna, endowing the character with a unique combination of fragility and resilience. It seems like life wants to beat Johanna down, but she’s not having it. Geisler, an East German, was only beginning to appear in films when the wall came down. She first appeared on screen in a small part in Interrogating the Witness (Vernehmung der Zeugen), an interesting little crime thriller starring Christine Schorn. While working on Little Thirteen, she met her future husband Thomas Bading. Since 2015, she has been working under the name Claudia Geisler-Bading. She appears in several well known films, including Christian Petzold’s Barbara, Cate Shortland‘s Lore, and George Clooney’s The Monuments Men.

We never do learn the name of Nino Sandow’s black stranger. Sandow was born and raised in East Germany, and studied opera singing at the “Hanns Eisler” School of Music and the “Ernst Busch” Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin. Herzsprung was his first feature film, but he has gone on to appear in several movies and television shows, most recently as the New York stage manager in Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous. He also teaches at the “Ernst Busch” Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin.

The music for the film is primarily either well-known classical pieces or songs by the Berlin folk-rock group Poems for Laila. It’s an unusual and effective combination. Poems for Laila still performs, although their line-up has changed considerably over the years. Like other multi-instrumental groups that toy with different ethnic music styles, their music is difficult to categorize—a little like DeVotchKa or 17 Hippies, but definitely its own thing.

Herzsprung bears more than a passing resemblance to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Both films tackle the issue of racism in Germany3, and both films are beautifully shot. Where Fassbinder’s film is shaped by the work of Douglas Sirk, Misselwitz’s film appears to be informed by the DEFA fairytale films. In the opening shot a woman sings a beautiful song while what appears to be snow drifts across the screen. Eventually it becomes clear that it’s not snow at all, but the pinfeathers from a goose that’s being plucked by women in a factory kitchen, and the song comes from one of the women (Eva Maria Hagen, in her first DEFA role since she left East Germany in 1977).

An important difference between Fassbinder’s and Misselwitz’s films is that while Fassbinder’s film is primarily about the racism that no one acknowledges until they are faced with it head on, Misselwitz’s film chronicles an ugly change that was occurring in the East. A change that would eventually lead to the formation of the National Socialist Underground (NSU), and the deaths of several people all over Germany.

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1. In 2011, the DVU and the NPD merged.

2. Although, the name of the town, according to some sources, somes not from the word for heartbreak, but from low middle German meaning deer (or hart) spring (Hertsprink).

3. Although, in a 2009 interview with Hiltrud Schulz of the DEFA Library, Misselwitz said that she was primarily trying to show the growing hostility in East German towns towards outsiders rather than specifically addressing racism.

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Apprehension
One of the goals of DEFA films, stated at the very start of the production company, was to present stories from as objective a viewpoint as possible. When Kurt Maetzig made The Council of the Gods, his intention was to avoid both the romanticism of Hollywood and the socialist realism of Soviet films. He wanted to make a film that, first and foremost, told the truth about how international corporations (most notably Standard Oil) fed and supported Hitler’s war machine. It was still a feature film, but with a higher level of factual accuracy than most of the films at the time.

Over time, DEFA drifted away from this approach, but director Lothar Warneke wanted to return to the idea of documentary fiction and see how far he could push it. In Apprehension (Die Beunruhigung) he pushes it right to edge. Warneke has given us a film that is just barely a feature film in the traditional sense of the word. In nearly every aspect it resembles a documentary. It’s shot in grainy black-and-white with hand-held cameras in the academy standard aspect ratio, which was unusual for a film made in 1981 (for more on the thorny topic of aspect ratios, see The Flying Dutchman). Sometimes people on screen look self-consciously at the camera, as if they weren’t expecting to be filmed, and maybe they weren’t. At times, the cameras seems to be hiding from the subject, peeking out from behind corners to catch the action. Several of the actors weren’t even actors at all. The doctor who performs the breast examination was an actual doctor. He was fed no lines, but simply instructed to tell the lead actress exactly what he would tell a patient in the same situation.

Die Beunruhigung

At the center of the story in the film is Inge Herold, a successful psychologist, who spends her days listening to the problems of others, and spends her nights hopping into the sack with a married man named Joachim. After a doctor’s examination, Inge is told by her doctor that they have found a lump in her breast. She must come in the next day to the hospital, for surgery. If the lump is benign, they’ll simply remove it. If it is malignant, she’ll have to undergo a radical mastectomy. For the rest of the movie, the camera follows Inge as she comes to terms with this possibility. She cries, searches out old friends, confronts people, and eventually comes to terms with things.

Apprehension isn’t the first film to blur the line between reality and fiction. Films such as Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story and Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool had already mixed actual events with fictional stories, while “found footage” horror films such as Cannibal Holocaust, The Blair Witch Project, and Paranormal Activities rely almost entirely on this conceit to deliver their chills, but Apprehension is different. Nothing here feels fake or forced. This could have been a documentary, except that it isn’t. Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s City of God comes close to capturing the same spirit, but even here the inherent fiction of the story feels more like storytelling that Warneke’s film (for more on Lothar Warneke, see Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens).

Inge is played by Christine Schorn. Born in Kiel to parents who were also actors, Schorn, appeared many times on television in East Germany before finally appearing in Her Third, her first feature film role. Schorn had a successful career in East Germany, not only on film and in television, but on the stage as well. After the Wende, feature film roles dried up for a while, and she went back to television and the stage, but soon she was appearing in films again, most notably Grill Point (Halbe Treppe), Goodbye Lenin!, and Franziska Meletzky’s According to Plan (Frei nach Plan), for which she one a best actress statuette at the German Film Awards. In that film, Schorn played the mother of fellow East German Dagmar Manzel, even though she is only 14 years older than Manzel.

Christine Schorn

The man behind the camera on Apprehension was a young cinematographer named Thomas Plenert. Trained as a documentary filmmaker, Plenert brought a unique look and feel to the film. Warneke was so impressed with his work, that he had him shoot his next two films as well. Meanwhile, Plenert continue to work primarily in the documentary field, including Helke Misselwitz’s classic Winter Adé, and The Wall (Die Mauer), Jürgen Böttcher’s short documentary on the deconstruction of the Berlin Wall (for more on Jürgen Böttcher, see Born in ’45).

Apprehension also falls squarely into that category of films known as Frauenfilme. This translates to “women’s films,” and is a very different creature from the “Chick-Flicks” of Hollywood. Unlike the Chick-Flicks, which are devoted almost exclusively to love and romance told from a female perspective, the Frauenfilme tend to deal more with the social issues that affect women—issues such as sexism in the workplace, pregnancy, and the difficulties involved in balancing a career and a family. As discussed elsewhere on this blog, East Germany was way out in the lead when it came to making this type of movie. Films such as Hey You!, The Legend of Paula and Paula, and Her Third had tackled these issues back in the early seventies, but the term wasn’t coined until The Lost Honor of Katarina Blum in 1975. The GDR continued to make films dealing with women’s issue throughout the seventies and eighties with films such as Solo Sunny, Hostess, Solo Sailor, The Bicycle, Today is Friday, Our Short Life, and All My Girls. In the West, the Frauenfilme were still outliers, primarily the work of female directors such as Margarethe von Trotta, Ula Stöckl, and Helma Sanders-Brahms. In East Germany, Frauenfilme were much more common, and were made by both male (Konrad Wolf, Heiner Carow) and female (Iris Gusner, Evelyn Schmidt) filmmakers.

Nobody expected much from Apprehension, but it hit a chord with the public. It played to full houses, and went on to become the most popular adult-oriented film to come out of DEFA since since The Legend of Paul and Paula. In any history of German film, Apprehension represents an important milestone.

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Winter Adé
The first films made in what would become East Germany after the war (at that point, still the Soviet sector), were short documentary films. Most of these early films were for propaganda purposes, showing how the Soviet Union was helping rebuild Germany after the war. After DEFA was established, documentary films were handled by a specific branch of the production company—the DEFA-Studio für Dokumentarfilme. It was here that Kurt Maetzig started as a director, and where Richard Groschopp returned to the craft. Eventually, the studio for documentary films would start making feature-length documentaries. The most famous, or infamous, as the case may be, is Look at This City!, but there are many more.

Winter Adé gets its title from a popular German children’s song. It means “goodbye winter,” and is a celebration of the coming of spring. Director Helke Misselwitz choice of title was both remarkably prescient and terribly ironic. Less than a year after the release of the film, the Berlin Wall would come down and a year after that Germany would be reunited.

The film uses as its structure, a train trip that covers the length of East Germany from top to bottom. It starts in Planitz, a town just west of Meissen where the filmmaker was born, then begins a train trip from Zwickau, near the Czech border, to Sassnitz, a resort town on the Baltic coast. Along the way, the film crew interviews women and girls about their lives and aspirations. The women come from all walks of life and all ages. Some are eternal optimists, and some have just given up. We meet, among others, a perky ballroom dance instructor in Altenburg, two no-future punky runaways in Berlin, and, in Groß-Fredenwalde, Margarete Busse, an 83-year-old woman celebrating her 50th wedding anniversary who delivers the real stomach punch in the film. Not all the interviews are with women, but all of them are about women or the perception of women in the GDR. Occasionally the camera crew stops to take in the local sights, most notably, a doll hospital in Delitzsch.

Winter Adé

Helke Misselwitz was part of the so-called Nachwuchsgeneration—the baby boomers who were just starting to make films for DEFA before the wall came down. She was working in the documentary film section at DEFA and noticed a lack of women working at DEFA (see All My Girls). This situation that didn’t make sense to her given the GDR’s claims of sexual equality. An equality, they were quick to point out, that did not exist in the West. She decided to make a documentary examining the role of women in East German society. What she found was complex and, at times, contradictory. Not really surprising considering the inherently complex and contradictory nature of the East German state. While some women were working in fields that were previously the exclusive domain of men, many others found themselves stuck in mundane jobs with no realistic hopes or dreams for the future. It must be said, however, that the few men interviewed in the films, also seem to have given up on their dreams. It is a fairly bleak picture of life in the GDR and is filmed, appropriately enough, in black-and-white.

After the Wende, Ms. Misselwitz founded the first privately-owned East German film company. She continued to make many documentaries as well as two feature films—Herzsprung, and the award-winning Englechen (Little Angel). Since 1997 she has taught directing at the “Konrad Wolf” Academy for Film and Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg.

Margarete Busse

Like the film’s director, cinematographer Thomas Plenert works primarily on documentaries. He got his start with Jürgen Böttcher—the director of Born in ‘45—filming several documentary shorts for him. He also worked on three of the DEFA feature films that Lothar Warneke directed (although not on Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens). He first worked with Helke Misselwitz on the documentary, Wer fürchtet sich vorm schwarzen Mann (Who’s Afraid of the Bogeyman), and continued to work with her on several more documentaries as well as her two feature films. He is also the cameraman that documentary filmmaker Volker Koepp most often chooses to shoot his films. Mr. Plenert didn’t experience the transition difficulties that faced many of the other technicians from DEFA. He continued working on documentaries and shot several episodes of popular German television shows, including many episodes of the post-Wende version Polizeiruf 110. In 1996, he won the German Film Award for best cinematography for his work on Volker Koepp’s documentary, Kalte Heimat (Cold Homeland).

Many directors maintain that “editing is everything.” If this is the case, then special credit must be given to Gudrun Steinbrück, who, like her husband, Thomas Plenert, has worked on most of Helke Misselwitz’s films. She also edited Jürgen Böttcher’s Die Mauer (The Wall), a film about the deconstruction of the Berlin Wall that relies almost entirely on its editing to give it its power. With the exceptions of the Helke Misselwitz’s feature films and a few others, she works exclusively in the documentary film realm.

Winter Adé

Winter Adé was well-enough received on both sides of the Wall to give Ms. Misselwitz a more secure position in DEFA’s documentary division. Unfortunately, more secure, in this case, only meant a couple years as DEFA was dismantled shortly after the Wende. On November 9, 1989, Ms. Misselwitz had the rather unique experience—for an East German at that time—of being in America when the wall came down, a situation she recounts in an essay that is included on the DEFA Film Library’s release of Winter Adé, which is also available here.

The film premiered at the 1988 Leipzig International Documentary Film Festival and caused a sensation. During the following year, Leipzig would be home to the Monday Peace Demonstrations, which helped bring down the wall. It is powerful documentary that should be seen by anyone interested in the role of women in society, whether that means the GDR or the USA.

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