Posts Tagged ‘Volkspolizei’

Don’t Forget, My Little Traudel
Don’t Forget My Little Traudel (Vergesst mir meine Traudel nicht1) is the story of Gertraud (“Traudel”) Gerber, A 17-year-old whose mother died in the Ravensbrück concentration camp eleven years earlier. Since then Traudel has been living as an orphan but still carries around a last letter from her mother, which ends with the sentiment that serves as the title for this movie. The story starts when Traudel escapes from the orphanage and heads for the big city—Berlin, in other words.

Up until this point, the films of Kurt Maetzig had been serious affairs, often focusing on the socialist values that spawned the DDR, but sometimes too didactic for their own good. In this film, he turns away from all that. This is not to say the principles of good socialism aren’t discussed here, but they don’t dictate the story in the same way that they have in most of Maetzig’s previous films. This time he goes for comedy, sometimes rather broadly, and even manages to throw in a parody of Marilyn Monroe’s famous skirt-lifting scene in The Seven Year Itch, when Traudel gets her fancy new shoes stuck in a ventilation grate.

Tradel skirt-lifting scene

After escaping from an orphanage in a remarkably risky-looking escape scene (filmed in one continuous shot, lest there be any doubt that the lead actress actually performed the stunt), Traudel is nearly run over by Wolfgang, a high-strung teacher on a motorcycle. She follows him to Berlin and settles in with him and his roommate, Hannes, a who also happens to be a policeman. After Hannes unwittingly helps Traudel get new identity papers, he finds out who she really is, but by then is in too deep.

Traudel is a bit of train wreck. After years in the orphanage, the world offers too many temptations for the young woman who is apparently lacking a common sense gene. With nothing to hold her back, Traudel goes from one messy situation to another. Hannes does his best to try and keep her below the radar, but that’s not Traudel’s style. This is a comedy, so, of course, everything gets happily resolved in the end.

Playing the impetuous Traudel is Eva-Maria Hagen. Prior to working on this film Hagen had been acting on stage with the Berliner Ensemble. In 1954, she married the screenwriter Hans Oliva-Hagen, best known for his work on Carbide and Sorrel. Together they had one child—Catharina, better known as Nina Hagen. Eva-Maria Hagen jumped right into starring roles in her first year working for DEFA. Although Don’t Forget My Little Traudel was the first film she worked on, it was released a couple weeks after Spur in die Nacht (Trace in the Night). Hagen was an immediate hit with the public and her sexy good-looks led her to become known as the “East German Brigitte Bardot.” Although dark-haired in reality, she often appeared as a blonde in films.

Vergeßt mir meine Traudel nicht

In 1965, she met the singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann, and the two became an item. By this time, the SED (East Germany’s ruling party) was getting fed up with Biermann’s attacks on their failure to live up to Marxist ideals. After the 11th Plenum, he was denounced for criticizing the SED, and was banned from performing. Later, after the ban was lifted, he was allowed to travel and perform in the West (he was a West German by birth), but it was really a tactic to get him out of the country. After his expatriation, Hagen and her daughter applied for, and received permission to join him in the West.

As was usually the case, Hagen found it difficult at first to get a foothold in the West German film community, but was soon appearing in movies and TV shows, usually in the roles of mothers now. More recently she can be seen playing the role of the grandmother in Cate Shortland’s Lore.

Hannes is played by Horst Kube, who usually played supporting roles. His roommate Wolfgang is played by Günther Haack, who probably would have had a bigger career in East Germany had he not been sentenced to prison for drunk driving and fleeing the scene of an accident the year after this movie was released. He did manage to rebuild his career, but then died as the result of a another traffic accident in 1965 (this time, as a passenger). There are some other fun performances in this film, particularly from Fred Delmare who plays a slimy hipster that engages Traudel in what can only be described as a Judo Apache dance, and Erna Sellmer playing the nosy Frau Palotta in her last East German role. If you look fast, you’ll also spot Manfred Krug playing a hipster at the nightclub.

nightclub scene with Fred Delmare

The screenplay was by Kurt Barthel, using his usual pen name, KuBa. Best known as a poet, this wasn’t his first foray into films. He had co-written the screenplays for Familie Benthin (The Benthin Family), Hexen (Witches), and Cottages and Castles. KuBa got his start writing poetry for Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), the German Communist Party’s official newspaper. KuBa’s poetry usually lauded the glories of communism, sometimes tot he point of parody. He is most well-known for his Kantate auf Stalin, a virtual love letter to Stalin (see The Story of a Young Couple). He also wrote a poem castigating the workers who protested duing the workers strikes on June 17th, 1953. Yet even he came under criticism for Fräulein Schmetterling (Miss Butterfly), which he co-wrote with Christa and Gerhard Wolf—a testament to the sheer lunacy of the 11th Plenum. KuBa died during a performance of Revolution Revue in Frankfurt. Revolution Revue included his 50 Red Carnations piece. KuBa was there by invitation of the August-Bebel-Gesellschaft, a society devoted to the historical preservation of the events surrounding the Eisenacher Congress of 1869 and the development of the Social Democratic Labor Party (see The Invincibles). Things were going fine until members of the Socialist German Student Union decided to stand up and protest KuBa’s work as not being communist enough. As it was phrased in a scathing attack on KuBa in Der Spiegel the following week: “…That of all people the West Germans didn’t find the revolutionary red’s lyrics red enough was too much for KuBa restless struggling heart.” He died on the way to the hospital.

Don’t Forget My Little Traudel was a huge hit with the public. As to be expected, there was some criticism for the authorities, in particular Anton Ackermann, who was the head of the film administration for the Ministry of Culture at the time. Ackermann objected to the Catholic boarding school and the fact that Traudel wore a cross. Maetzig easily countered these objections by pointing out that, in fact, neither of these was in the film. It’s probable that Ackermann didn’t even bother to watch the movie, and got his information from the original working script. In defense of Ackermann, the only reason he was put in charge of the film board was because Walter Ulbricht saw him as a potential political threat in nearly any other position.

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1. This first word in this film’s title is usually rendered as “Vergeßt.” with the eszett (that funny ‘B’-looking thing). However, the title card for the movie spells it “Vergesst,” so I am using that.

Beloved White Mouse

The musical comedy is not a genre anyone would associate with East Germany. It was born in Hollywood and reached its acme under Arthur Freed at MGM. Musical comedies are happy affairs, light as meringues  colorful, and carefree—not qualities that immediately spring to mind when one thinks of the GDR. But DEFA made several musicals and most of them are fun. Beloved White Mouse (Geliebte Weiße Maus) is one of the most fun musicals, which is curious considering it began with a PR effort from the Ministry of the Interior to improve the public image of the Volkspolizei.

After the wall was built, East Germany endured a great deal of bad press. In spite of their argument that the wall was not an instrument of oppression, but one of protection (see Look at This City!), the wall helped promote the image of East Germany as one of a drab, 1984-style land, devoid of happiness and love. This was especially true of the Volkspolizei, who were often enlisted to help with situations that were really under the purview of the military. When faced with protests, the VoPo resorted to the same tactics used by cops all over the world in these situations: hit first, arrest for resistance, and ask questions later. As a consequence, by 1962, Stasi reports were showing a dangerously large-scale discontentment with the People’s Police.

The Ministry of the Interior turned to DEFA to help change this image and change it they did. DEFA’s solution was a light comedy about one of the most innocuous members of the Volkspolizei—the lowly traffic cop. Traffic police were fixtures of Germany during the fifties and sixties—both east and west—and were often seen in the middle of intersections directing traffic. They wore white uniforms to make them more visible, which led to the nickname “White Mice” (Weiße Mäuse). Beloved White Mouse is the story of one such traffic cop named Fritz Bachmann. Fritz directs traffic at a busy intersection in Dresden’s Loschwitz borough. Everyday, he sees the same people walk and drive by, in particular, a doe-eyed waif named Helene who rides a “Troll” motor scooter to work. Helene also notices Fritz and decides it’s time to meet him. Fritz has another admirer, a zaftig woman named Frau Messmer, who walks her poodle past Fritz’s station and has a nasty habit of losing control of her poodle at the intersection. When the interests of these three collide—not literally, but almost—the story begins.

Like any good musical, reality here is pliable. People start singing directly to the movie audience, and at one point Fritz and Helene sail over Dresden, carried aloft by a beach umbrella. It’s a fun sequence, and the camera is careful not to venture too close to the parts of the city that were still in ruins from the WWII firebombing by Allied troops. After all, this is a comedy, not a documentary.

Beloved White Mouse was directed by Gottfried Kolditz, and stars Rolf Herricht. Kolditz hardly needs an introduction here. Some of his films have already been featured on this blog, including Midnight Review, Apaches, and the psychedelic masterpiece, In the Dust of the Stars. Playing Fritz is Rolf Herricht. one of East Germany’s most popular comic actors. Herricht was best known as half of the comedy duo, Herricht and Preil, who were staples of East German television. An example of their work together can be seen in the film DEFA Disko 77. Herricht appeared in several films, including Not To Me, Madam!, Hauptmann Florian von der Mühle (Captain Florian of the Mill), and the banned film, Hands Up, or I’ll Shoot. Herricht died in 1981 of a heart attack on stage during a performance of Kiss Me Kate at the Berlin Metropol Theater.

Karin Schröder, who plays Helene, is possibly the most adorable actress to come out East Germany. Her large brown eyes and blonde hair here make her look like a living Keane painting. She got her start playing the sporty Ruth in the popular DEFA musical New Year’s Eve Punch, and demonstrated a knack for comedy that Kolditz put to good use in Beloved White Mouse. In 1976, she proved she was equally adept at drama, winning the best actress award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival for her performance in Kurt Maetzig’s Mann gegen mann (Man Against Man). Most of her work in East Germany was in television, where she appeared in over thirty TV movies and several of the most popular shows. She appeared nine times on the East German TV series Der Staatsanwalt hat das Wort (The D.A. Has the Floor), although never in the same role twice. In 1987, she moved to West Germany. As with other actors that moved prior to the Wende, she was able to continue her career without the sorts of problems that those who stayed in East Germany until the bitter end experienced. She has gone on the appear in several popular TV shows since then, including a turn as the Kriminaloberrätin Marianne Stockhausen on Die Wache and as Sophie Himmel-Eiler on the long running soap opera Unter Uns.

Playing the unlovable Frau Messmer is Marianne Wünscher, an important character actor in the DEFA line-up. She appeared in dozens of East German TV-movies and several of the Stacheltier shorts that played before the main features at East German cinemas. She also made a brief appearance in Hot Summer as the director of the Volkseigenes Gut (farm collective). Too chubby for lead roles, she made a career out of playing the parts of nosy neighbors, officious secretaries, or lovable older women. She also appeared on stage, and had a knack for comedy. Ms. Wünscher died in 1990 in the middle of the Wende—after the wall fell, but before the reunification. She is buried in the Friedhof Pankow III cemetery in Berlin’s Pankow-Schönhausen district.

The music for Beloved White Mouse was by Carlernst Ortwein, a Leipzig-born pianist who used the pseudonym Conny Odd for his film work. Most of his film scores were made for the short films of Lothar Barke and others. In 1967 he moved away from film work to concentrate on his serious music, He appears briefly in the film playing piano in the dance orchestra. Conny Odd didn’t have an avant garde bone in this body, so the songs here, while enjoyable, could have come from a musical made ten years earlier. You won’t be singing them upon leaving the theater like you might with Hot Summer. A particularly entertaining number, though, is “Der Mann von Titelblatt,” which features a beauty parlor full of people singing about Fritz’s appearance on the cover of a magazine. It’s the kind of surreal nuttiness that makes this and other musicals so much fun to watch.

No examination of Beloved White Mouse would be complete without mentioning the work of its cinematographer, Günter Haubold. A comedy musical requires a bright and happy palette of colors and Haubold’s work here fits the bill perfectly (helped considerably by Babett Koplowitz’s colorful costume design). Everything is bright and airy, and seems like it was filmed in the sunlight–even the indoor scenes. There are no shadows in this film. Haubold got his start assisting Wolf Göthe on Gerhard Klein’s A Berlin Romance. He worked on several DEFA classics, including Konrad Petzold’s Das Lied vom Trompeter (The Trumpeter’s Song), Horst E. Brandt’s Zwischen Nacht und Tag (Between Night and Day), Günter Reisch’s Anton the Magician, and Iris Gusner’s All My Girls. In most respects, Beloved White Mouse was an anomaly in his body of work. He is best known for a semi-documentary style and some of the best black-and-white cinematography committed to film. He reached retirement age just as the wall came down. He ended his career with the dissolution of DEFA and DFF, but continued to work privately and to teach cinematography. He died in 1999.

As one might expect, Beloved White Mouse was a hit in East Germany. After the 11th Plenum, lighthearted comedy musicals like this one were taken off the schedule. Several of the films relegated to the “Poison Cabinet” during the 11th Plenum were banned for no better reason than that they were frivolous fun. But people need their fun, and it wasn’t long before comedies and musicals started showing up again, most notably with the classic East German Beach Party movie, Hot Summer.

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Bear Ye One Another's Burdens

Of all the aspect of life in East Germany, the one that we Americans (and many West Germans) are the most ill-informed about is the subject of religion. Images of preachers being hunted down like dogs and tortured for believing in God were popular concepts in U.S. films and television, especially during the fifties. Anti-religion statements by Marx and Lenin were often trotted out as proof that in communist countries believing in God was tantamount to subversion. So prevalent was this attitude that President Reagan claimed that the East German government had spent thousands of dollars trying to coat the glass panels on the Berliner Fernsehturm’s sphere to prevent the appearance of a cross as a reflection when the sun shined on it (not true).

While it is true that communists have no love for religion—seeing it as a tool used by those in power to keep the proletariat in a state of numbed acceptance of their fates, waiting for some imaginary payoff after death—there is, nonetheless, a realization that if people really want to believe in such things, there’s just no stopping them. There were churches in East Germany, people went to them, and, yes, most people celebrated Christmas. Like the west, they believed in the separation of church and state, the difference was that in the GDR, that meant religious groups could not use their power to influence the government, where in the west it is taken to mean that government can’t influence the churches.

Lothar Warneke’s remarkable film, Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens (Einer trage des anderen Last) does a lot to destroy these stereotypes. In 1951, while working on the reconstruction in the newly-formed GDR, a young East German Volkspolizist named Josef “Jupp” Heiliger develops tuberculosis and is sent to Schloss Hohenfels, a clinic in Coburg. There he is assigned to share a room with a young vicar named Hubertus Koschenz. Heiliger (whose name, ironically, means “holy”) is an ardent Marxist, while Koschenz is just as ardently Christian. The two argue about politics and religion and quote the Bible and Marx to each other. Soon, Koschenz is quoting Lenin to defend his viewpoint and Heiliger is quoting the Bible to bolster his arguments for socialism.

Heiliger finds little sympathy for his viewpoints at Schloss Hohenfels. The head of the clinic is an ex-Nazi and has little use for politics of any kind; and an ardent capitalist named Truvelknecht likes to set the community room’s radio to RIAS, West Germany’s U.S.-sponsored radio station (see Look at This City!). Heiliger tries to rally people to the communist cause and Koschenz tries to start a bible study. They each find a few supporters, but most of the people at the clinic are indifferent to their causes. A few of them are going to die and they know it, and don’t have time for the young men and their philosophical righteousness. The strict head nurse, Walburga, has no patience for the young socialist, but an attractive young woman named Sonja Kubanek takes a shine to him, going so far as to pretend to read the Communist Manifesto to attract his attention.

The story is a bit of a roman à clef. It is based on the actual post-war experiences of the East German writer Wolfgang Held, who is, for all intents and purposes, the real Josef Heiliger. Like Heiliger, Held developed tuberculosis while working as a Volkspolizist clearing the rubble left after the war, and was sent to a clinic where he shared a room with a vicar his same age. In 1995, Wolfgang Held finally published the story in book form under the same title as the film.

Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens could have easily dissolved into one of those films where people endlessly argue with each other over politics—and it could have just as easily turned into a maudlin display of emotions—but Warnecke brings a light touch to the story, making it both humorous and affecting. The film is made by a filmmaker at the top of his craft, carefully composing scenes for maximum visual impact and pulling from a bag of technical tricks to create on-screen metaphors that rival the written word.

Director Lothar Warneke was in a unique position to tell this particular story. Before becoming a filmmaker, he studied theology under Emil Fuchs, the leading authority on christian socialism (and the person to whom the film is dedicated). After that, Warneke became a church vicar for a short time before deciding to go back to school for filmmaking at the film school in Potsdam-Babelsberg. He worked as an assistant director for Joachim Kunert and Egon Günther and played bit parts in various films before stepping behind the camera. His first film as director, Mit mir nicht, Madam! (Not With Me, Madam!) was a spy farce starring Manfred Krug and Rolf Römer in multiple roles, which Warneke co-directed the film with fellow Potsdam-Babelsberg alumnus, Roland Oehme.

Warneke went on to make several popular films for DEFA, but Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens was his most successful—and his last. After the Wende, Warneke, like many DEFA film people, found it harder to find film work in the newly unified Germany. He directed a few films, mostly documentaries, and later taught filmmaking at the film school at Potsdam-Babelsberg. He died in 2005.

Susanne Lüning in Bear Ye One Another's Burdens

For both lead actors—Jörg Pose and Manfred Möck—Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens was their first time in leading roles and they are well cast. The philosophical friction and verbal sparring that goes on between the two is believable and never strained. Also deserving attention are the two lead actresses, Karin Gregorek and Susanne Lüning. Ms. Gregorek plays head nurse Walburga, a part for which she was nominated for best supporting actress at the first annual European Film Awards and won the same award at the 5th Annual East German National Film Festival (Nationales Spielfilmfestival der DDR). Susanne Lüning plays the beautiful, love-starved Sonja, and brings the part a sad wistfulness. Like the lead actor, Manfred Möck, Ms. Lüning attended the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts (Hochschule für Schauspielkunst „Ernst Busch“ Berlin). She is the daughter Barbara Dittus, who played Jutta Hoffmann’s entertaining sidekick in Egon Günther’s Her Third. Since the Wende, all of these actors have continued to act, primarily in television and on stage.

No examination of this film would be complete without mentioning the exceptional editing and camerawork. The editor was Erika Lehmphul, who edited all of the films Lothar Warneke made after Mit mir nicht, Madam. With its shift between black-and-white depictions of the past and the metaphorical use of trees to show Heiliger’s changing condition, the editing here is flawless. On a par with Ray Lovejoy’s work in 2001 A Space Odyssey. Scenes meld with each other in clever and lyrical ways. Sadly, Ms. Lehmphul’s career as an editor ended with the Wende.

The cinematographer was Peter Ziesche, a newcomer to the DEFA technical crew and a worthy addition at that. Ziesche’s work is flawless, his palette of colors is ever-so-slightly dark and vivid, giving the film a serious undertone that might have otherwise been lost. Ziesche continued working as a cinematographer after the Wende. As with most other DEFA people, he found more work in television. One of the few feature films on which he worked, Bernd Sahling’s Blindgänger (The Blind Flyers), earned him a German Camera Award nomination.

Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens was a huge hit in East Germany and was also popular in West Germany, where it won the best actor Silver Bear for both of the lead actors. It was nominated for best screenplay and best actress at the first annual European Film Awards, and won the audience award at the East German National Film Festival.

IMDB page for this film.

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Wolfgang Held’s website (in German).