Socialist Fairy Tale Dystopias: “Land Beyond the Rainbow”

Few tales provide a better staging for a “good versus evil” post-socialist fairy tale film than Herwig Kipping’s 1991 Land Beyond the Rainbow. Set in an imaginary village, Stalina, in the days leading up to and after the GDR’s brutally repressed 17 June 1953 uprising, or worker’s revolt, Kipping’s film draws on a number of East German film aesthetics – including fairy tale films. Kipping himself never suggested that the film should be read as a fairy tale, but it is hard to miss the reference, even if unintended. The bright colors and exaggerated characters allow for a multi-layered morality tale, but one that has been radically upended and shaken about. It is a fairy tale gone bad, one that shows the tragi-comedy of promises made with promises broken, where uncertainty and fear are in a precarious balance with hope.

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The Rainbowmaker tries to convince Marie that Hans (r.) is too violent for her.

Kipping shows few children in the film, but three children play the role of the protagonists. Two boys, Hans and the Rainbowmaker, and a girl, Marie, fend for themselves, at least when they are not being coerced by the grandfather/mayor into raising new memorials to Stalin, or when local hooligans – or are they latter-day partisans of uncertain loyalties? – harass the children. The adults bother only to notice the trio – of course the number three here, one of fairy tales’ magical numbers – when parents or other authority figures need something from one of them.

Mothers and fathers do not take care of their children in Stalina, and the children are not always nice to their parents. Land Beyond the Rainbow might be an updated Hansel and Gretel tale, where parents send their children out into the wild with benevolent neglect, rather than obvious malice. The children, rather than push the witch into an oven (or kill their parents, in an earlier Brothers’ Grimm version of the tale), are violent, with Hans blowing himself up in the middle of the village. Stalina makes a mockery of the GDR’s claim to be country where children were to be the future of socialism; it also dismisses any belief that children could even be manipulated for that purpose.

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The Rainbowmaker tries to show a rainbow to Marie through a prism.

Children manipulate each other in Land Beyond the Rainbow. The witch in this re-telling has become a devil, or rather, the evil Hans. He has imprisoned Marie psychologically, forcing her to watch him crush baby chicks that she then buries. She cannot leave, believing, perhaps, that she can save him, or at least prevent him from further cruelty. The Rainbowmaker, the “good” boy, is a silent, effeminate character, with longish hair; the Rainbowmaker must wear a headband that keeps his bangs out of his eyes – forcing him to see. Marie completes the triangle of lovers as the girl who is torn between two suitors, playing both of them, yet afraid to lose either of them. The Rainbowmaker tries to convince Marie that she is too good for Hans; Hans walks over and yanks Marie away from the Rainbowmaker’s side. She turns back to look at the Rainbowmaker, but she does not protest as Hans pulls her along.

At a 2012 Modern Language Association session, the fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes once dismissed this film (and thus my reading of it) as “ekelhaft,” disgusting, one that he saw only as Kipping’s chance to get back at a system that wronged him. To be sure, the film can be disturbing: If senseless violence and greed were not enough to make the audience uncomfortable, then the practical violence of skinning a pig and pulling out its entrails is enough to make even village butchers avert their eyes. Still, fairy tales are not really fairy tales without an element of the horrific that fights against an element of goodness. Ultimately, Land Beyond the Rainbow is an apocalyptic fairy tale where love not only does not conquer all but exists only within the duality of love and hate.

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Marie, poetic monologue on life.

This is the fairy tale of ages that is also the heart of this “disgusting” film: the three children, those three entities, function as one. Juliette, Paris, and Romeo; Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost; Adam, the serpent, Eve; Eve, Cane, and Abel; Joseph, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary. These three children are in passionate love, in all senses of the word, and it is up to us to keep our eyes open to watch and understand them and thus Kipping’s dystopian fairy tale, even when it offends our sensibilities.

 

Documenting Education

This semester I taught a grad student seminar called “Documenting Education” at the University of Vienna in the faculty of Philosophy and Education. I had planned on discussing the long-term documentary Die Kinder von Golzow (dir. Winfried Junge; later Barbara Junge and Winfried Junge, 1961-2007), about a school class in the German Democratic Republic. The department then asked that I teach the course in English, and I suddenly needed a new syllabus. I decided to keep the general theme of the course and expand it to ask questions about how media, and movies in particular, portrayed education (broadly conceived) and how people learn in a society. We read standard literature from how movies function pedagogically to whether advertisements on TV do anything but convince people to buy things to the issue of violence in video games and violence in society. We watched movies and clips from productions like The Blackboard Jungle (1955, dir. Richard Brooks), Lady Gaga music/commercial videos, and parts of Michael Apted’s Up-Series (1964-2012).

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I had expected students to enjoy the mixture of media pedagogy theory with applying these ideas to films and other media of their choice, and that the use of visual material would help encourage them to read and write with confidence in a foreign language. I had not expected the intensity of our sessions, or the eloquent conversations they conducted on-line throughout the week, or that I would find myself so engrossed in reading their seminar papers that I lost track of time (birdsong is a good indication that the dawn has approached). What surprised me most was the variety of lessons that the students took from the class. Anthropomorphism in Disney films as an extension of Aesop’s fables, comparisons of teaching philosophies in films about the Vietnam War vs. about a school, the evolution of portrayals of lesbianism in the many versions of Mädchen in Uniform, including the 1931 Sagan/Froehlich and 1958 Radvanyi (starring Romy Schneider) versions and the play by Christa Winsloe that the films were based on, and so many more topics than I could have hoped for when I started the course. Every few years the combination of students and topic make for a dream team of a class, and this was one such semester. My only regret? That we did not document our own education during the course.