Posts Tagged ‘women’

Alle meine Mädchen

As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the communist countries were way ahead of the west when it came to women’s rights. At the time of the Wende, over half the judges in East Germany were women, as were at least a third of the doctors. However, there were certain areas where women were decidedly underrepresented. Aside from a few secretaries, the Stasi was almost exclusively made up of men, and the upper echelons of government were still mostly men (and old ones at that). Another area where women lagged shamefully behind their male counterparts was in the ranks of feature film directors at DEFA. Although women were writing scripts and directing documentaries for the film company, there were only three women working as feature film directors: Ingrid Reschke, Evelyn Schmidt, and Iris Gusner. Even here, Ingrid Reschke died in a car crash three years before Evelyn Schmidt started at DEFA, meaning that at any given time there were only two women working behind the lens on DEFA feature films, and only one between 1971 and 1974.

That one was Iris Gusner. Gusner studied filmmaking in Moscow, and made her first movie for DEFA in 1973. Unfortunately for her, that movie, Dove on the Roof came at exactly the wrong time and was shelved until after the Wende. Her next film, The Blue Light (Das blaue Licht) was a Märchenfilm. It did not suffer the same fate, and her career was back on track. She made several films for DEFA, but All My Girls (Alle meine Mädchen) is the film for which she is best known.

All My Girls starts with a film school student named Ralf Päschke, who is assigned to make a documentary about a brigade of young women who work at NARVA—East Germany’s state-run lightbulb factory. Soon, he finds himself emotionally and romantically involved with the women and worried about the future of the brigade as the bosses at NARVA threaten to separate the women while they retrofit the factory. Overseeing the brigade is Marie Boltzin, a no-nonsense woman who has seen her share of problems in life. Leading the brigade of women is Susi, an ebullient and shallow young woman with a feathered hairdo identical to the one worn by her American Doppelgängerin Debra Jo Rupp in the American sitcom, That ‘70s Show. Her sidekick, and the person placed officially in charge of the brigade, is Anita, an attractive woman with a pixie cut and a mean streak she uses to hide her emotions. The two others are Gertrud, a shy young woman with a bad case of the hiccups, and Ella, the most grounded woman in the group, and the only one with an actual relationship, albeit with a married man.

Then there is Kerstin. Kerstin is there as part of her probation requirement for petty theft, and is not considered part of the group by the others. Unlike the other women, Kerstin has completed her Abitur (a secondary-school degree required for entry into a university in Germany). For this, she’s treated as an object of scorn and ridicule, primarily by Susi, who seems to be more than a little jealous of Kerstin.

The women in All My Girls are a happy-go-lucky bunch (be forewarned: they giggle a lot), but when they hear news of the brigade being disbanded they attack Ms. Boltzin for keeping this fact from them (she did not), and when Ms. Boltzin shows her notebook cataloging each woman’s tardiness, she is accused of spying on them—an allegation that brings with it the spectre of the Stasi and their Inoffizieller Mitarbeiteren (civilian informers). This is too much for Ms. Boltzin to bear and she withdraws from the factory, eventually suffering a nervous breakdown.

Playing the put-upon Ms. Boltzin is Lissy Tempelhof, a well-known East German actress who starred in several feature films and made-for-TV movies. The Berlin-born actress had just turned sixteen when WWII ended. There, she and her mother worked as Trümmerfrauen—the women who essentially rebuilt the bombed-out German cities after the war and suffered greatly at the hands of the Russian troops. She studied acting at the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts (Hochschule für Schauspielkunst “Ernst Busch,” HFS), and worked as a prompter at the theater in Senftenberg. She appeared in many theatrical productions and started appearing in films starting in 1954. Her first major role came in 1961 with her performance as Dr. Inge Ruoff in Konrad Wolf’s film of his father’s play, Professor Mamlock. Wolf used her again in 1964, as the narrator of his next film, Divided Heaven. She was also a regular on East German television and appeared in five episodes of Polizeiruf 110 as five different people. She continues to work in film, television, and stage. Besides acting, she is a talented singer and teaches singing in Berlin.

Susi is played by Madeleine Lierck. Born in West Germany, She is the daughter of Werner Lierck, a comic actor who moved to the GDR in the early fifties and starred in dozens of the short Stacheltier films, which were shown before the main features in East Germany cinemas (more on the Stacheltier films at a later date). Ms. Lierck started working in films in the late sixties. A hyperactive performer, she was soon appearing in several films and TV shows every year. Her first feature role was as Thalia in the popular East German beach-party movie, Hot Summer. For Ms. Lierck, the Wende represented only a momentary hiccup in her career. She was soon working again and has appeared in several films and TV shows since then, including the popular TV mini-series, Wir Sind Volk (U.S. title: The Final Days), about the end of the GDR.

Barbara Schnitzler dancing

Barbara Schnitzler plays Anita. Although she had appeared in several TV movies prior to All My Girls, Iris Gusner’s movie was her first feature film role. Ms. Schnitzler has the dubious distinction of being the daughter of Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, the much-hated host of Der schwarze Kanal (see Look at This City!). Charges of nepotism might seem inevitable, but Ms. Schnitzler is a fine actress and manages to make her character both sweet and a little mean. In spite of what would seem like a handicap in unified Germany, Ms. Schnitzler has gone on to have a successful career. She has appeared in dozens of post-Wende films, and is part of the acting ensemble for the Deutsches Theater in Berlin.

Playing Kerstin is the stunningly beautiful Viola Schweizer. Ms. Schweizer was a familiar face to East German television viewers, having appeared in dozens of TV movies with her breakthrough role coming in 1978 in Über sieben Brücken mußt du geh’n (You Have to Go Over Seven Bridges). After the Wende, Ms. Schweizer appeared in a few films and appeared in the short-lived TV series, Spreewaldfamilie, beside with her All My Girls co-star, Jaecki Schwarz, but, as with many other East German actors, she found film work got harder to come by after the wall came down. In 2001, she officially retired from from film and TV work in Germany, but continued to work in theater productions abroad. More recently, she has retired from the theater as well and lives in a small town near Berlin. Now 58, she is still very beautiful.

Inspiration for All My Girls came from a  documentary short by Jürgen Böttcher titled Sterne (Stars—not to be confused with the feature film of the same name). All My Girls struck a chord with the East German public. Like The Legend of Paul and Paula, the film resonated with the average worker for its portrayal of life outside of the rarefied world of the intelligentsia. Screenings were well attended and the reviews were mostly favorable. The film was chosen to open the first East German National Film Festival (Nationale Spielfilmfestival der DDR), where Lissy Tempelhof won awards for best actress and for “the most successful representation of a working personality.”

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The protagonists in East German films are frequently women. In movies such as Her Third, He du!, and The Dove on the Roof, the plots center around women who are on an equal (or superior) footing to their male counterparts. Even in genre films such as Signals and In the Dust of the Stars, we see women in positions of power. The terms Mitarbeiter (co-worker) and Kollegen (colleague) were used to avoid designations of class, but class differences were there nonetheless. DEFA was sensitive to this issue and rightfully proud of its track record on the matter of female equality—at least, on the screen. When The Legend of Paul and Paula was released, it faced stiff criticism from the authorities because it presented a working woman who had very little control over her situation. It was only after Erich Honecker gave that film his blessing that it was allowed to be shown. So it’s no surprise that The Bicycle (Das Fahrrad) wasn’t exactly greeted with open arms.

The Bicycle goes much further than Paul and Paula did. Here, the protagonist is Susanne, a single mother who operates a punch press at a factory, doing the same thing all-day long in an oppressive environment. She is thoughtless and louche, lacking the work ethic that made Paula so admirable. Susanne likes to go out drinking and puts paying her bills in second place to having a good time. She is constantly running late and in debt. The father of her child is never mentioned, Judging from her lifestyle, it is likely that the child was a result of a casual relationship. It is apparent that most of her problems are the result of her own irresponsibility.

In spite of all this, Susanne is not without sympathy. She has made some bad choices and she is still making bad choices, but she obviously loves her daughter very much. We can understand it when she finally gets fed up and walks off her job at the factory; it is a terrible place. With no marketable skills, her attempts to find new work prove fruitless, and the fact that she has a daughter also affects her work opportunities. Susanne decides to take the advice of one of her drinking buddies and claim that her bicycle was stolen. Now able to pay off some of her bills, things seem to be looking up for Susanne. It is around this time that Thomas Marlow enters the picture.

Thomas is an idealistic young engineer who worked his way up through the ranks and has just been put in charge of an important project. His colleagues congratulate him and vow to stand behind him. Thomas is flush with success and excited by this new opportunity to show the bosses what he can do. In truth, his colleagues are playing the old game of letting the new guy stick his neck out first. The last time we saw a scenario like this played out on film in East Germany was in Frank Beyer’s The Trace of Stones (Spur der Steine), which was banned for suggesting that such internecine shenanigans went on in the GDR.

Thomas gets Susanne a job in his factory and everything is copacetic until the local policeman catches Susanne riding her supposedly-stolen bike. Thomas tries to help her, but his concern over how the incident will reflect on him causes a rift between them. In the end, Thomas’ undoing has nothing to do with Susanne. Meanwhile, the workers committee at the factory helps her deal with her legal problems. To her surprise, they show her compassion and solidarity, just as they’ve shown compassion for one of her co-workers, a woman in an abusive relationship.

The film takes some pains to show that the collective—at least among the factory workers—behaves the way a collective should: helping those who need help, and allowing everyone to have a voice on the subject. But the idea that the engineers in the GDR would be as duplicitous as westerners did not go over well with the authorities. The fact that the women are doing the mundane work, while the men sit in the front offices was an even stronger challenge to the GDR’s public stance that women were treated as equals. As a result, although the film was allowed to screen in East Germany, it was banned from entry into the international film festivals.

Director Evelyn Schmidt was part of the fourth generation of DEFA directors (Nachwuchsregisseure) that started making films during the final years of East Germany’s existence. This group included Peter Kahane, Jörg Foth, Iris Gusner, Dietmar Hochmuth, Karl-Heinz Lotz, and several others. As I discussed in my post about The Architects, this new group of directors found it difficult to get their films made during the final decade of the GDR. Schmidt’s first feature film, Escapade (Seitensprung), met with good reviews and was shown at the 1980 Berlinale as part of the program for new filmmakers. Her next film, Auf dem Sprung (The Jump), did not fare as well with either the public or the critics. It wasn’t until 1990 that she received a “permanent” position as a director at DEFA, but permanence in that fateful year was a fleeting thing.

After the Wende, Schmidt ran into the same prejudice against East Germans that many others from DEFA faced. The idea that these people were as talented—if not more so—than their free market counterparts was rarely considered. How could anything good come from a system that produced the Berlin Wall and the Stasi? After DEFA was dismantled, Schmidt found that work as a film director became difficult to find so she moved into the realm of legitimate theater. Currently, she teaches film acting classes at the Charlottenburg Drama School in Berlin.

Schmidt often uses hand-held cameras (thankfully without the current tendency toward herky-jerkiness), which helps impart a sense of reality to the movie. The use of music is sparse, usually only playing as part of the natural environment (in the bar, or on the radio). The pacing, in typical DEFA fashion, is slow and methodical. It assumes a certain level of familiarity with the state of affairs in the GDR at that time.

Central to The Bicycle are the characters of Susanne and Thomas, so the effectiveness of this films rises or sinks on the performances of the two leads. Fortunately, both are up to the task. Heidemarie Schneider convincingly plays Susanne, and Roman Kaminski is good, if not always likable, as the self-righteous Thomas. Ms. Schneider had already appeared in a dozen DEFA films and a couple TV appearances before starring in this, her first leading role. Ms. Schmidt must have liked working with her because she cast her again in Auf dem Sprung (The Jump), and Der Hut (The Hat). After the Wende, Ms.Schneider continued to find work as actor, primarily in television productions. Similarly, Roman Kaminski has also continued to work in TV since starring in this film.

For anyone interested in the subject of women’s issues and feminism of film, The Bicycle is an important addition to the topic. It is one of the most honest portrayals of life in East Germany from behind the Iron Curtain, and helps those of us who did not experience it get closer to what living in the GDR must have been like.

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