Posts Tagged ‘trains’

Kaskade Ruckwarts
The title of Bailing Out (Kaskade rückwärts) refers to a particularly tricky equestrian move where the rider, rather than performing an emergency dismount by a normal method, does a backwards somersault off the rear of the horse. The move is ably demonstrated in the film and is impressive, but it’s really a stunt move that no horse rider is likely to use unless they like to show off and don’t mind a few broken bones in the learning process. In the context of the film, the move also refers to the sudden decision of a dispatcher named Maja (Marion Wiegmann) to “bail out” of her placid small town existence and start things anew in the city. Her husband had died and Maja is having trouble moving on, much to the consternation of her teenage daughter, who sees her mother settling into a rut. Maja eventually decides to go for it. She moves to the city and starts learning to become a train conductor. Teaching her the ropes is Gerd (Siegfried Höchst), a crusty, lifelong bachelor who manages, somehow, to be both stodgy and eccentric. Playing matchmaker for Maja is Carola (Johanna Schall), a frustrated wife who is living the single life vicariously through Maja.

While DEFA prided itself (with some justification) on films told from a female perspective, the fact is, most of these films were made by men. It is interesting to compare this film, which was directed by Iris Gusner—the only female film director working at DEFA at the time—with Egon Günther’s Her Third, which covers similar territory, but was written and directed by men. Curiously, Her Third is harsher in its criticism of male behavior than Gusner’s film. Bailing Out offers a more nuanced picture of things. The men here are still problematic, but not simply because they are pigs. Some are just oddballs who probably will never meet a woman—or any other person, for that matter—that they can relate to; and the women have their own problems. For a while, it looks like Maja might start a relationship with the music teacher Toni (Jaecki Schwarz), who praises her singing, but who is more interested in her voice than being a boyfriend. We know where this film is heading, and it eventually gets there in its sweet, oddball way.

Iris Gusner’s film credentials are impressive. She studied under Mikhail Romm at the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK, now known as the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography), and worked as assistant director to Konrad Wolf on Goya. Her first feature film, The Dove on the Roof, was banned, so she did what most directors faced with this situation chose to do: she played it safe next time by making a fairytale film (The Blue Light). She scored her biggest hit with All My Girls. A few months before the Wall came down, Gusner moved to Cologne, where she worked in television. In 2009, Fantasie und Arbeit: Biografische Zwiesprache (Fantasy and Work: A Biographical Dialog) was published; a book she co-wrote with West German filmmaker Helke Sander.

marion Wiegmann

Maja is played by Marion Wiegmann, a theater actress who worked primarily at the Brandenburger Theater. Bailing Out was her only feature film, but it was enough to garner her the award for Best Actress at the 1984 National Feature Film Festival of the GDR (Nationales Spielfilmfestival der DDR). In 2014, she received an award from the Brandenburger Theater for her work there.

Like Wiegmann, co-star Siegfried Höchst was also a theater actor. Unlike Wiegmann, however, Höchst never recovered from the fall of the Wall. Born into an impoverished situation, Höchst was an ardent believer in the ideals of communism and worked to support the SED. He was an excellent actor and appeared in several films and TV movies as well as appearing on stage. Unfortunately, he was also a heavy drinker, a problem that got progressively worse during the seventies. Coming out of rehab in the early eighties, he started to work again, and even managed to direct a couple TV movies before the Wall came down. But when the republic began to falter, Höchst returned to the bottle. After the Wende, Höchst withdrew from public appearances, preferring to stay home and drink. His exact date of death is unknown. His body was found on December 13, 1991, but he had apparently been dead a few days already at that point.

The real star of the film is Johanna Schall. Whenever she’s on the screen, it’s hard to watch anyone else. Schall comes as close to royalty as the GDR had to offer. Her father was Ekkehard Schall, one of the foremost interpreters of the works of Bertolt Brecht, and her mother was Barbara Brecht-Schall, the daughter of Helene Weigel and Bertolt Brecht. After reunification, Schall worked as a director for various theaters across Germany, while, at the same time, appearing in television shows and giving guest lectures. In 1992, she starred in Apfelbäume (Apple Trees), which was screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival. These days, she prefers to work behind the scenes as a theater director. She also writes on a number of topics on her blog (in German, of course).

Johanna Schall

At the start of Bailing Out, we hear Maja sing a song over the dispatch radio to one of the truckers. The song was written by Christian Kožik, a composer living in Potsdam. The lyrics are based on Ballade de la belle heaumière aux filles de joie (Ballad of the beautiful helmetmaker’s wife to the ladies of the night) by François Villon. Villon’s poem is a warning to pretty young women that someday their beauty would fade, so they’d better get all they can while men are still putty in the their hands. The poem was also the inspiration for Auguste Rodin’s La Belle qui fut heaulmière, a sculpture of a withered old woman, sitting on a rock.

Bailing Out is an odd film with middle-aged leads, quirky behavior, and unusual career choices. Perhaps this was too odd for the East German audience because the film didn’t stay in theaters long and actually got better reviews in West Germany than in the GDR. For anyone interested in the East German Frauenfilme (Women’s films), this is a good follow-up to Gusner’s All My Girls, which also looks at working women, but at a different point in their careers.

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© 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.

There are a few East German films that, in spite of the political differences, are acknowledged as classics on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Stars, The Murderers Are Among Us, and The Rabbit is Me have all entered that exclusive group, but—with the exception of Stars—these films did not receive much attention until after the wall fell. Jakob the Liar (Jakob, der Lügner), on the other hand, was immediately recognized as a classic. So much so that it was nominated, against all odds, for an Academy Award, and Hollywood felt the need to create its own heavy-handed version starring Robin Williams.

Jakob the Liar is the story of people living in a Jewish ghetto, near the end of WWII. They are always in imminent danger of being shipped off to the concentration camps, and the question that’s on everyone’s mind is: Will the Russians get there before its too late? When a man named Jakob Heym overhears that the Russian troops aren’t far away, he tells everyone that he heard it on his secret radio. In fact, he heard it while he was waiting to be chastised at the local military headquarters. As time goes by, the lie gets bigger and everyone in the ghetto turns to him for hope. We know nothing good can come of this scenario, but the film manages to maintain a fine balance between hope and tragedy. This is thanks largely to the deftly written screenplay by Jurek Becker.

Becker first wrote the story as a film script in 1968, but DEFA—still under the influence of the 11th Plenum’s rules against anything even remotely provocative—nixed the idea. Becker turned his screenplay into a book, and the book proved to be popular on both sides of the wall. After Erich Honecker took over the reins of government from Walter Ulbricht, the restrictions against films were relaxed a bit. Becker’s screenplay was dusted off, and the film was greenlighted for production.

Jurek Becker was born in Łódź, Poland, probably in 1937 (his actual birthdate is something of a mystery). Being Jewish, he and his family were moved into the Łódź Ghetto in 1939, and later shipped out to concentration camps. He and his mother ended up first in Ravensbruck, then in Sachsenhausen at the Königs Wusterhausen sub-camp, where his mother died of malnutrition shortly after the camp was liberated. His father was sent to Auchschwitz, and miraculously survived. Jurek was reunited with his father after the war and the two of them moved to the Soviet Sector because his father felt that the Russians were doing a better job of curbing anti-Semitism than the western allies.

At first, the young man fit well with East German society, but while still at school studying philosophy, he got in trouble for his contrary views and was expelled. Becker spent the next few years working as a freelance writer, writing articles and screenplays. Jakob the Liar was his first novel, but was followed by many others, including The Boxer (Der Boxer), Sleepless Days (Schlaflose Tage), and Bronstein’s Children (Bronsteins Kinder), all of which have been made into movies (primarily for German television).

Frank Beyer directed Jakob the Liar. Beyer was well-respected for his WWII films, Königskinder (Star-Crossed Lovers), a politically-charged love triangle during WWII; Carbide and Sorrel, a comedy set in the aftermath of the bombing of Dresden; and  Naked Among Wolves, the first DEFA film to examine life inside a concentration camp. In the wake of the 11th Plenum, Beyer’s film, The Trace of Stones, became the biggest bugbear of the East German government and Beyer spent the next ten years working at the Dresden State Theater, and later  in television. Jakob the Liar was also originally intended for television, but its popularity led to theater distribution.

Jakob the Liar shows the sure hand of a director who, through earlier experimentation and a variety of different film projects, has mastered his craft. Every scene is composed to tell the story as economically as possible. The experimental camera angles and scene compositions of his earlier work—most notably Königskinder—have been toned down in favor of straight-forward storytelling. The cinematographer was Günter Marczinkowsky, who had shot every Beyer film since Eine alte Liebe (An Old Love) in 1959. Here, he and costume designer Joachim Dittrich work from a palette of grays, browns and olive drabs that create an appropriately oppressive atmosphere. In 1980, Marczinkowsky left East Germany to work in the west, where he continued in television production until 1989.

After success of Jakob the Liar, Becker teamed up with Beyer a second time to create The Hiding Place (Das Versteck), starring Manfred Krug and Jutta Hoffmann. It was during the production of this film that Wolf Biermann was forcibly expatriated. Several popular East German film people signed a letter of protest about this. Among the signatories were Beyer, Becker, Hoffmann and Krug. The SED, running scared by this time, ended up driving most of these people—along with Angelica Dömrose, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and several other of East Germany’s brightest talents—out of the country.

Becker was given a two-year visa, which he used to move to the United States and teach for six-months. After that he moved to West Berlin and continued writing, although his books were no longer published in the GDR. Beyer found himself in the doghouse once more, but, remarkably, he was given a work permit to make films for West German television. Nonetheless, he did not give up his East German citizenship and continued working on both sides of the border, making a few more feature films for DEFA before the wall came down. After the Wende, Beyer worked primarily in television. He has since retired. His last film was the TV-movie, Abgehauen (roughly translated: Beat It), based on Manfred Krug’s autobiographical account of the events that led to that actor’s expulsion from the GDR.

Jakob the Liar’s minimal but haunting score was by Joachim Werzlau. Beyer and Werzlau had worked together many times before, starting with Beyer’s first feature film for DEFA, Zwei Mütter. Zwerlau was born to make music. His father was an orchestra musician who taught him to play piano and violin, and the boy was already trying his hand at classical composition at the age of twelve. At first he did not study music, but began working at the Blüthner piano factory. later he was accepted at the Leipzig Conservatory of Music, but was kicked out because of his left-leaning associations. After the war he was a member of the Cultural Alliance for Democratic Renewal of Germany and composed “Weil Wir Jung Sind, Ist Die Welt So Schön” (“Because We Are Young, The World Is So Beautiful”), a song frequently sung at FDJ meetings (Freie Deutsche Jugend, or Free German Youth, the official socialist youth movement of the SED).

Jakob the Liar was Zwerlau’s last film score. Like Simeon Pironkov’s score for Stars, its inspiration comes from Jewish folk tunes and is hauntingly melancholy. After this film, Werzlau concentrated on his classical compositions, in particular, his opera, Meister Röckle, based on the book by Ilse and Vilmos Korn that was adapted from a version of a old fairy tale that Karl Marx had re-interpreted.

No examination of Jakob the Liar would be complete without mentioning the film’s exceptional cast. To play the lead, Beyer cast Vlastimil Brodský, a Czech actor whose sad-sack expression was perfect for the part. The Czech spoke German very badly, so his voice was dubbed. Scenes of dialog between Brodský and other actors were reportedly very difficult for all involved. Sadly, Brodský committed suicide in 2002.

Playing Jakob’s best friend, Kowalski, is Erwin Geschonneck, arguably the best actor in East Germany. Geschonneck had wanted to play Jakob, but Beyer convinced him that a smaller, more inconspicuous man was needed. [For more information on Erwin Geschonneck, see the article on Carbide and Sorrel.]

Most of the leading actors in the film went on the have successful careers in unified Germany. Among them, Henry Hübchen and Blanche Kommerell, who played the young lovers, Mischa and Rosa, and, of course, Armin Mueller-Stahl, who has the singular distinction of appearing in both film versions of the story. Worthy of special mention is the charming performance by Manuela Simon as the young girl, Lina, who serves as the last symbol and childhood innocence in the ghetto. It is her only film performance, and it is a heartbreaker.

Although the film did not win the Academy Award (that honor went to Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Black and White in Color), Frank Beyer won the Interfilm Award for his directing, and Vlastimil Brodský won the Silver Bear for best actor at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1975. The Holllywood version of the story went unnominated by the Motion Picture Academy, but Robin Williams did garner a Golden Raspberry award nomination for worst actor (he lost to Adam Sandler in Big Daddy).

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Film noir is not a term that is usually associated with East German cinema. It is used most often when discussing the Warner Brothers crime films of the 1940s. Noir comes with certain rules that must be followed. The main ones are: characters whose complexity keeps them from falling into easily identifiable categories of good and evil; atmospheric use of shadows and unusual camera angles that serve as signifiers for the moral choices that the characters must struggle with; and usually—though not always—a crime or other tragic event. One of the best-known and most interesting examples of an East German film noir is The Second Track (Das zweite Gleis), directed by Joachim Kunert.

Based on a story by the director and the prolific German author, Günther Kunert, The Second Track starts with an incident in a trainyard in which yard inspector Walter Brock catches two men trying to steal goods from one of the boxcars. After one of the men is apprehended, Brock suddenly changes his tune and claims he can’t identify the man. The thief, a man named Erwin Runge, knows he has seen Brock before, but can’t remember where. He sends Frank, his young partner-in-crime, out to seduce Vera, the inspector’s daughter, in hopes of finding out just who Brock really is. The young thief gets emotionally involved with the daughter and the two of them go off to find out what happened to her mother. Pretty soon, all the dark secrets of the past come bubbling to the surface, for both Brock and Runge.

The Second Track was made in 1962 and released just a little over a year after the wall went up. Although it was seen by West Germans and Americans as a symbol of oppression (quite understandably), the wall also afforded new opportunities for creative freedom in the East German film community. The GDR was anxious to make a point that the wall was built to stop the west from trying to destroy the East German economy and morale. It was important to show that the wall had nothing to do with oppression, and to this end, many restrictions on filmmaking were eased. For the more imaginative directors, this was a time to stretch their wings. It was during this period that we saw Konrad Wolf’s Divided Heaven, which presaged the New German Cinema by several years. It was also when Gottfried Kolditz reintroduced the musical to East Germany with Midnight Revue and Beloved White Mouse. For Kunert and his cinematographer, Rolf Sohre, it was an opportunity to demonstrate what they could do when left to their own resources.

Like any good film noir, the characters are complex and hard to categorize. Frank is a thief, but he is also the person that seems the most interested in finding out the truth. Likewise, Walter Brock is basically a good man, but he has been lying to his daughter all her life in an attempt to hide his shameful past. Vera is the most innocent person in the story, but even here our introduction to her is from a colleague who describes her as a block of ice. Even the venal Erwin Runge becomes more complicated when his ex-wife explains that he was once a good man who was changed by the war.

The character truest to the film noir genre is Frank. Like Philip Raven—Alan Ladd’s character in This Gun for Hire—he is a man on the wrong side of the law, who, through his love for a woman, comes to do the right thing. The actor, Horst Jonischkan, was primarily a stage actor (as was Albert Hetterle, who played Brock). Jonischkan appeared in several DEFA productions, most notably, The Song of a Trumpeter (Das Lied vom Trompeter), in which he portrays a young trumpet player who dies for the cause (the cause being communism, of course).

Director Joachim Kunert got his start in films as an assistant-director at DEFA, where he worked for six years before directing Ein Strom fließt durch Deutschland (A River Runs Through Germany), a 30-minute color film about the Elbe River. His documentary short, Martin Andersen Nexø, about the Danish author of the same name, was banned in West Germany. It was during the early sixties that Kunert was able to really show what he could do with The Second Track and his next feature, the extremely popular film The Adventures of Werner Holt. After the 11th Plenum, things got a bit more difficult for him. While attempting to make a film from Franz Fühmann’s book on Hans and Sophie Scholl, Kunert ran afoul of the authorities and spent the rest of his career making movies for television. As a fan of the work of author Anna Seghers, he has made three films based on her novels (Die Toten bleiben jung, Die große Reise der Agathe Schweigert, and Das Schilfrohr), and a segment for another film (Das Duell segment in Aus unserer Zeit).

The cinematography for this film was by Rolf Sohre, and it is sensational. The dramatic shots of the trains pulling in and out of the yard and roundhouse are reminiscent of O. Winston Link’s moody railroad photographs. Many scenes in the film are bathed in light and shadows, including that reliable old noir trope: the striping of venetian blinds at night. Faces often are either hidden or partly obscured by darkness, echoing the dark secrets that hide in the pasts of the two older men.

Sohre grew up around cameras and film. His father was a projectionist and owned a movie theater for a time, while his uncle owned a photography studio in Dresden. As a young man, he worked for both men, learning everything everything there was to know the art of photography and the mechanics of movie equipment. In The Second Track, he pours his knowledge of these things into every frame. Although several scenes take place in darkened rooms, the shots are never muddy or obscure. Every frame of this film is as clear as crystal. Toward the end of the GDR’s existence, Sohre left DEFA and took up photography full time. He lives in Nuthetal, a small municipality southeast of Potsdam.

The music for the film is by the Slovakian composer, Pavol Simai. Simai composed the music for a solo harp, played by the East German classical harpist, Jutta Hoff. Simai explores the harp in every way imaginable, having Hoff strike, pluck and even scratch the strings. It is one of the strangest film scores from East Germany—a country already notable for some very odd film scores. Simai only composed music for a few movies before bowing out to continue his studies. In 1968, he moved to Sweden, where he took up residence in Göteborg. There he taught and composed pieces for orchestra and guitar. He is best known for his “Impressions for Guitar” as performed by Czech/Swedish guitarist, Josef Holecek. In 2001, a CD of his classical pieces was released under the title, “Key.” It is currently out of print.

During its existence, DEFA, and its television counterpart DFF (Deutscher Fernsehfunk), produced dozens of Krimis (crime films). Stories about criminals and spies were very popular, and many of the DFF Krimis are available in Germany in boxed sets. The quality of these films vary greatly. A few films from the GDR can rightfully be considered film noir, but none is more deserving of the title than this one.

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