Looking for Breadcrumbs – The Fairy Tale Film that Never Was

Empty filmic spaces tell us as much about life and politics in East Germany as do the movies that made it to the Big Screen. I have often wondered, for instance, why the socialist film production company DEFA never made a live-action film based on “Hansel and Gretel.” DEFA pulled out most of the stops for other Brothers Grimm fairy tales favorites, like Red Riding Hood (dir. Götz Friedrich, 1962), and The Frog Prince (dir. Walter Beck, 1988). So what kept them from imagining a full-length movie version about two hungry siblings, a controlling stepmother, breadcrumbs, and a gingerbread house owned by an evil witch? There is, after all, much to love about the brother and sister team of Hansel and Gretel, who, chased away from home, wind up in an adorable cottage where the sister is in charge of fattening up her brother for the witch’s meal. Pathos, irony, murder, and a reminder to never, ever use edible objects to mark one’s way through the woods: this fairy tale had it all.

Hansel and Gretel, Illustration from "Die Gartenlaube," 18

Hansel and Gretel, Illustration from “Die Gartenlaube,” 1894

To be fair, the fairy tale did make its way to the Dresden animation studio as a 1975 hand puppet short feature. A year later, the comedic duo Rolf Herricht and Hans-Joachim Preil played the parts of Hansel and Gretel in a trailer for DEFA’s summer film line-up. In this brief version, the “children” encounter an attractive, singing witch, who wants nothing more than to lure them into the magical world of cinema during vacation. Perhaps part of the trailer’s cast made filmmakers nervous about any further mention of Hansel and Gretel. The witch was none other than the young Nina Hagen, who a few months later followed her expatriated stepfather Wolf Biermann from East Germany into the West and a successful record career.

But the Grimms’ fairy tales had staying power, enough to overcome even political intrigue. Given the line-up of DEFA fairy tale films, it seems more plausible that the story itself presented too many obstacles. Key parts of the tale would have proven difficult to change for a happy socialist ending, and DEFA filmmakers were most successful when they did not tinker too much with the general arc of the Grimms’ narratives. “Hansel and Gretel” is about a society marked by insufficient food supplies, parents who force their children out of the house and Gretel’s heroic saving of her brother by pushing the witch into the oven to burn to death.

Nina Hagen as a witch, this time in "7 Dwarves: The Woods are Not Enough," 2006. FAZ 10/24/2006

Nina Hagen as a witch, this time in “7 Dwarves: The Woods are Not Enough,” 2006. FAZ 10/24/2006

These were not topics that could be transformed into a feel-good, socialist-humanist morality tale. Two desperate German children tricking an elderly woman in to a fiery death would have summoned unwelcome images of the Holocaust – an association that would have been impossible to ignore or treat lightly. The witch would have to be burned properly for the end to make any sense, as demonstrated by Rudolf Jugert’s forgettable 1971 West German production of the fairy tale. In that 8 mm version, a confusing blinking red light pulsed underneath an apparently cold oven, making it more of a convenient container in which to jail the witch instead of a place to turn her to ash. This was one part of the German national heritage that the East was willing to ignore. Still, “Hansel and Gretel” marks the top of many lists of DEFA movies that are noticeable for their absence. One wishes that DEFA might have given it a shot.

War Orphans in Film – No Happy Endings

Of all of the post-World War II films that addressed the problems of orphaned children, the Hungarian film Valahol Európában (Somewhere in Europe, also known as It Happened in Europe, 1947) elicited the most shocked public outcry about the youngest victims of the war. Directed by Géza Radványi, who wrote the screenplay with writer Béla BalazsSomewhere in Europe continued with the filmic trope of pointing unrelenting, accusing fingers at the adults who had allowed the onset of a war (i.e. pretty much everyone) that continued to punish young people long after the last shots had been fired and bombs had been dropped in Europe. Unlike the films Somehwere in Berlin (Irgendwo in Berlin, dir. Gerhard Lamprecht, 1946, DEFA/Germany) or Germany in the Year Zero (Germania Anno Zero, dir. Roberto Rossellini, 1948, France/Germany/Italy), Radványi’s work focused on war orphans themselves, instead of employing children as part of a larger plot about societal renewal. Somewhere in Europe is a cry of anguish, not a lesson on shame or the politics of reconstruction.

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Screenshot of children attempting to hang the conductor in “Somewhere in Europe.”

Radványi positions a group of wandering children who find their way to an abandoned castle against the adults of the surrounding village who gleefully shoot at – and in one case kill – the “juvenile delinquents” who steal food and supplies in order to (barely) survive. He does not pretend that the children are innocents; indeed, he highlights the ways in which the war and its end pushed young people into criminal acts. Most haunting is perhaps the scene at the castle where the children decide to hang the once-famous conductor who also resides there. When the slightly older leader of the group, Peter, stops them from killing the older man, he asks what motivated them to want to execute another war refugee. The answer: “For fun.” These are children who have learned not only to fend for themselves, but to imitate the behavior of the adults they have encountered, and who abandoned them.

Radványi offers a supposedly happy end for everyone. The local villagers realize that they should be helping the children instead of treating them like the enemy; the children wash their dirty faces and put on suddenly clean clothes and happily wave from their castle – officially now theirs – to the conductor as he heads off across the green pastures of Hungary towards, one presumes, a rekindling of his musical career. I find this “happy ending” rather unhappy and troubling. Forgetting the fact that, in hindsight, the castle would likely have been nationalized in the next years, we are still left with a group of children who have no means of feeding themselves. There is no garden in sight, and the larder of meat left by the conductor will run out at some point. True, the villagers have recognized the errors of their ways. But for how long? There is no talk of caring adults looking after the children’s well-being, or even feeding them. When do the children start pillaging again? The castle is not an orphanage. It is at best a temporary solution, one well-suited to the needs of the time, that is, to find a place where children could be forgotten, at least temporarily.

Screenshot of wandering orphans in "Somewhere in Europe"

Screenshot of wandering orphans in “Somewhere in Europe”

I do not think that Radványi or Balazs intended for their audiences to take away this other message of accusation; the story of war orphans, however, had few happy ends in any postwar society. Somewhere in Europe, in this sense, unconsciously documents this second act of tragedy, in which adults learn to feel solace that children can be saved – from themselves and from their experiences. It is only a temporary salvation; not even a fairy tale would know how to fix this tragedy. If this reason is not enough to bring Somewhere in Berlin more fully into international scholarship and history and film studies classrooms (it has excellent English subtitles, since the United Nations supported the postwar international distribution of the film, helped along by such politicos as the then-French president Auriol Frack and his Dior-clad wife exclaiming that this was a “must-see” film), then the curious use of the nineteenth-century American melody of the folk tune “O Susanna” that the children sing-shout in the castle would surely peak anyone’s curiosity.

Gangs in Postwar West Germany. Sort of.

cropped-teenage_wolfpack_poster_02.jpg What is it about youth on the verge of disaster that makes for such compelling films? The best part of them, of course, comes with the inevitable sacrifice of one of the young protagonists, preferably a suicide or murder that – although useless for the individual in question – catalyzes the rest of the group (or the film audience) to see the error of these adolescent ways. If we can see all of this drama unfold in black and white, in the 1950s, in a West German production that was as much about postwar anxieties about youth as it was about caring what happened to young people, the film gets better before we even watch it. Give it a cool English title for export and those American GIs stationed in West Germany in the 1950s, and show it in retrospectives alongside its (much better made) East German parallel Berlin Ecke Schönhauser, and you have a film worthy of its would-be James Dean-like coolness, auf Deutsch.

I am talking, of course, about Die Halbstarken (dir. 1956, Georg Tressler), DVDCoverDieHalbstarkenthe West German production about a wanna-be gang of young people who get involved in the usual juvenile delinquency problems: unfair and rigid parents who will not admit that they have financial problems, let alone solve them; a disinherited son of said parents; sex and the dangerous promise of it; alcohol, including the timeless tradition of raiding the parents’ liquor cabinet;  hip music and dancing; high-maintenance hair-cuts (for the young men – girls had it so much easier in the 1950s); the eternal search for the perfect leather jacket; a cash shortage related partially to the desperate need for a Big Car (a Buick, of course); gunfire; poorly-planned and dangerous shenanigans-cum-heists; and – most important – teenage boredom. A bonus is the lead hooligan, the actor Horst Buchholz (aka Henry Bookholt) as the gang leader Freddy, best known for his role in The Magnificent Seven. The unfortunate English titles are variously Teenage WolfpackWolfpack, and, once in a great while, the more accurate Hooligans. The movie can be downloaded for free in German and English at the Internet Archive, and is the perfect film for fans of such movies as Blackboard Jungle and all things that are a memorial to James Dean, whether as part of a course on post-World War II Germany or Cinema of Divided Germany or sexuality or anyone who just really enjoys pop culture of the 1950s.

One of the key sites in this film is the city’s swimming pool – a public setting that allowed for a gathering of youth. This kind of public setting that seemed to be a harmless or at least neutral part of the built landscape was suddenly the domain of the Halbstarken. The teenagers at the pool smoke, harass the lifeguards, tease the girls. Other public areas include the gas station, where the protagonist of the story, Freddy, works when he and his boss can be bothered to allow this brief interaction with true wealth: gas-guzzling big cars that young men without connections or a decent robbery can only dream of. His buddies hang out there, watching expensive cars drive by on their way to assuredly exciting places. The kids drink Coca-Cola and eat “exotic” foreign treats like candy, talk about society in the most derogatory terms possible – and in a new, adolescent language that seems foreign to adults around them – express their hopes and fears, both in rebellion of and embrace of a new modernity. The ultimate public space becomes the “Espresso” club, where these young good-for-nothings can dance, drink alcohol, and be in charge of their world: Adults fade into the background.

In this film, the role of girls among boys, but also boys among boys, is particularly interesting: peers become a reason to show off, to get in trouble, and to drag others around them into situations that they have a hard time getting out of. Thus, the very same society that the Halbstarken want to leave behind them looks eerily like their own society, where people go along with other people in the interest of fitting in, almost consciously ignoring the frightening everyday life and consequences for their actions that they have created for themselves. Ultimately, members who get out of this society find themselves confronted with it violently – more violently than any adults could have imagined for the teenagers – and are forced to “grow up” in the face of a society whose morals are, at least here, at best ambivalent.

But why do we care so much about this era? To begin, the 1950s offered a new age in West German, and thus Cold War, history. With the introduction of a new currency in West Germany (the Federal Republic) in 1948 (replacing the Reichsmark with the Deutsche Mark), the financial aid package “Marshall Plan” funded by the United States, and a joint US and West German priority of bringing the country out of its postwar social and economic destruction, West Germany was in the midst of its “Economic Miracle” years – a term often used by outside observers and Germans themselves. A new consumer culture had evolved, with a stress on the return to a traditional nuclear family, with a working father and a stay-at-home mother (see Robert Moeller’s book on the subject, Protecting Motherhood: Women and the Family in the Politics of Postwar West Germany)Commodities such as new kitchen appliances, fashion, evenings out (including at the cinema) and cars marked a decided public sense of having left the Second World War behind. Travel, too, was a key part of this era, marked especially by the Volkswagen Beetle – which also helped enable a near manic-desire for West Germans to travel (for more on this topic, look at Rudy Koshar’s German Travel Cultures). It was not unusual to see a packed VW of family or friends descend upon a Spanish beach just for the weekend.

But such periods of a seeming utopia also have other, darker sides. Not everyone can be part of the miracle, and some people do not want to be. West German adolescents comprised one of the most important group of outsiders, sometimes excluded, and other times simply disgusted by, the appearance of a society that had “made it.” Indeed, adolescents became one of the most important participants in this new society: some young people embraced a consumer culture that they could now afford; others refused to part of that society and developed their own sub-culture, referred to by the adults around them (and seldom themselves) and as”Halbstarken,” or “Hooligans.”

“Hooligans” (although better than the movie’s English translation, which brings up images of Nazi werewolf movements or animal viciousness in general) is perhaps an unfair translation, since it connotes people who are interested only in getting whatever they want, at any cost, with a palpable desire to leave destruction – or at least defacing of public and private property – in their wake, and without a political or even consciously social agenda. The Halbstarken might better be described as a post-World War II “lost generation,” with some roots in the interwar lost generation years that provided little meaningful existence for young people. The Halbstarken-Hooligans had a political and social agenda: the protesting of what appeared to be a hypocritical, bourgeois society that allowed no criticism, and certainly allowed no open discussion of the sudden disappearance of all mentions of the Nazi period.

The Halbstarken wanted meaning in their lives, and they found it in their subculture of – literally – their bodies. Fist-fights dominated many Halbstarken activities, part of an attempt to both reject and threaten the “peaceful” culture of traditional society. In fighting each other, they let it be known that they were ready to fight others, and not only metaphorically. In common perceptions, at least, violent fights between police officers and these young people were daily news in most large cities; teachers complained of their disruptive behavior in class (if the students even showed up), and many a politician put it on his or her agenda to “deal with” these young people for once and for all. The public feared the potential aggression of these young people, believing Halbstarken of perhaps not only creating chaos but also destabilizing the government and the regime.

Still, what we see with this movie is a kind of Bildungsroman, an attempt to find meaning in life without responsible adult or traditional societal directives. Perhaps ironically, these sorts of inner voyages cannot truly be separated from the very society that a subculture rejects. The Halbstarken had a “uniform” of their own – leather, denim, slicked back pompadours – all iconic symbols that defined the group for each other and for the “insiders.” It is thus not surprising that, ultimately, the identities of these young people eventually transitioned into their participation in traditional society, with university studies, jobs, and families. That is to say, there could be no sequel to Die Halbstarken that would not be a boring and disappointing follow-up of teenagers turning into their own bourgeois parents. No wonder we cling to these heroes and heroines who were not afraid, to the point of folly, to ridicule the very cinema audience watching them.

For a German discussion of using this film in teaching, see Michael Kraus’s curriculum suggestions auf Deutsch. 

Nazis on the Dark Side of the Moon. Where else would they be?

If you have not seen Iron Sky (dir. Timo Vuorensola, 2012), march (there is no real goose-stepping in it or I would make that bad joke) to the nearest rental store or your favorite on-line streaming source and get it. Don’t read the negative reviews about it or go its Facebook site until you have seen the movie, or you will fall into the kind of Weltschmerz despair that will keep you from enjoying the ride. And what a ride it is: Nazis flee to the Dark Side of the Moon in 1945 and spend the next 75 years preparing their return to (yep, take over) Earth. The headquarters/fortress looks like the Pentagon, except it is in the shape of a swastika; a blonde beauty (Julia Dietze) renate_in_classroom-copywith perfect skin prepares her students for the message of friendship that National Socialists will bring with their invasion, err, triumphant home-coming; the African-American model/astronaut falls into the Moon Nazis’ hands and gets “albino_ized” – whitened –  against his will; two Nazi soldiers stare at the centerfold of an Earth porn magazine and try and figure out why the hair “down there” on women looks like “our great Führer’s mustache.” If there is a bad joke or science fiction film allusion or a scene in poor taste that the movie misses, it’s probably in the director’s cut. At least I hope so.

The movie was several years in the making, a Finnish-German-Australian co-production that relied heavily on Wreck-a-Movie – an early crowd-funding site that asked anyone and everyone for suggestions on what should be in the movie, and for donations while they were at it. It is a small wonder that the film is not the length of Wagner’s Ring Cycle (don’t worry, the reference makes it into the movie). So perhaps fans of an idea are not the best source of good filmmaking…but I fear that a critically-acclaimed version of a film on Moon Nazis would have been, well, either uncomfortable or boring. Maybe both. Reviewers’ complaints about bad acting and a failed plot line missed the rather tricky sleight-of-hand that it took to make a movie born of a persistent campy-fascination with Nazis that cinema audiences and an awful lot of people in general hang on to. Even a cult film like Starship Troopers (dir. Paul Verhoeven, 1997) only dared dance on the edge of Nazi allusions, with cinema-goers fighting for the right to be the first to point out the Gestapo-like uniforms here or the references to war propaganda movies there. cropped-movieironskyposterflickr.jpg

So, to summarize: Iron Sky is not subtle. Any jokes anyone has ever made about Nazis abound – but then the same goes for the films’ Americans, whose only positive contribution to humankind was apparently Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 The Great Dictator. Spoiler alert: The Moon Nazis don’t win, primarily because every country in the United Nations (except Finland) has a secret spaceship program ready to nuke any and all impending threats to Earth. Second spoiler alert: After defeating the Moon Nazis, the Earth’s nuclear powers turn on each other, a scene in outer space that it is not nearly as exciting as the fisticuffs action in the UN conference room after the U.S. lays claim to the vast, untapped resource of “helium-3” on the moon. The crowd-funded sequel to the movie, Iron Sky: The Coming Race assures me that all I need to know about it is the title. Nay-sayers might read the lack of a script, contracts for actors, or the general absence of a plan into that statement. I can’t think of a more winning combination.

Food, Love, and Fairy Tale Films

Screenshot, "How to Marry a King"

Wedding Banquet, “How to Marry a King”

This still is from the East German fairy tale film How to Marry a King (Wie heiratet man einen König) from 1968, directed by Rainer Simon. It is a good example of the Janus-faced approach that the German Democratic Republic had regarding its films, especially those guaranteed to attract a young audience: On the one hand, the Ministry for Culture praised this film’s attention to detail, from the medieval castle and court set to the division between royalty and “the people.” On the other hand, socialist functionaries complained that young people would miss the subtlety of a king and queen struggling to make sense of love and passion as a means of making sense of the world around them. What particularly worried the powers-that-be was the lengthy banquet scene – reports before the premiere insisted again and again that children would be bored watching the couple eat.

How wrong the critics were – a good feast was and is a treat for the eyes and imaginations of young and old audiences alike. The sheer variety of the dozens upon dozens of dishes, from stuffed pig to exotic fruits make for mouth-watering scenes, must have provided audiences in a country not known for its abundance of food a hint of what could be. Before the Happy Ending comes, a fairy tale must stop several times along the way, and a good banquet for royalty is a satisfying test of the couple’s ability to get along. Does one need to understand the erotic undertones of the King (played by the theater actor Eberhard Esche) placing a cherry on a point of the Queen’s (Cox Habbema) crown to smile at their playfulness? Would a child not be able to laugh at the Royal Couple teasing each other with food?  It is not quite a scene from the cafeteria lunch room, but the use of mealtimes to grab the attention of a cute girl or boy is hardly an adult invention. How much more satisfying – for adults and children – to watch a couple begin a relationship by trying not to spill wine on each other than to see them kissing (too obvious and boring for the grown-ups; too icky for youngsters to suffer through).

Perhaps, though, socialist functionaries were more worried about the food on the Royal Couple’s table than about viewers’ attention spans. Nowhere in the film is there a suggestion that the Royal Couple is evil for having access to seemingly all the food in the world. Nor do any peasants watching the banquet appear to harbor ill-well towards those with more of, well, everything. After leaving the darkened cinema with its sense of magic and possibility, would East German audience members be able to imbue their rather more modest evening meal with passion, fun, even flavor? Love in the time of socialism was certainly attainable – but for most East Germans, it would not be accompanied by a wedding banquet of excess. The film’s popularity and the Ministry for Culture’s dissatisfaction with it might have been two sides of the same Royal Coin: the East German population watched a utopia that still seemed within reach, while the modern-day rulers knew that such dreams, even in 1968, would never come true. How to Marry a King, then, offered the wrong rewards for a socialist Happy End. Exotic foods would never be part of even the most ambitious five-year plans.

Children’s Films and Films for Children

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Final triumphant scene of father and son in “Somewhere in Berlin”

I have been writing on children’s films specifically for half a decade, and began to include them in my general work more than a decade ago. Yet, the more I write about, research and watch them, the less confident I am in my answer of what a children’s film is. Part of the dilemma is that filmmakers seldom know what their target audience is, evening arguing the point with studios up until the point that a film is premiered (in which case the audience seems to have the say). The third film in the East German film production company DEFA’s repertoire, Irgendwo in Berlin  (Somewhere in Berlin, dir. Gerhard Lamprecht, 1946) has consistently been included in volumes about East German children’s films. The story of a boy struggling to understand his despondent father, returned from World War II, the film might well have spoken to other young children after the war who despaired at ever seeing the “real” return of their fathers – the letters of a young Brigitte Reimann who described her Vati’s disheveled appearance at the train station where the family went to meet him after his release from a Soviet POW camp come to mind. Certainly, Somewhere in Berlin has enough pedagogical messages to instruct young boys (never mind the girls) as to how to push their fathers to re-assume their roles as heads of household and the nation. Still, given the choice between that much reality and the brilliant colors and fantasy of the Soviet folklore film The Stone Flower (dir. Alexandr Ptushko, 1946), released the same year in German cinemas, would children or even their parents willingly have chosen Somewhere? Or does Somewhere merit the category of children’s film more because of its subject matter – the everyday tragedies and victories of young people – than does a film that must make its appropriateness for a children’s audience explicit by framing the movie with an old man who tells the tale of the “stone flower” to a group of excited children?

A History of the Future that Never Was, but Should Have Been

interkosmos_posterThis past week I had the opportunity to watch the 2006 fake documentary Interkosmos, part of  Jim Finn’s “Communist Trilogy”. How could one not be taken with the idea of a GDR-sponsored cosmonaut program that got buried when the spaceships went missing? Even better, the female cosmonaut’s codename was “Seagull,” the same codename of the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova. Tereshkova made it back to Earth and the USSR in 1963, but Interkosmos and its many allusions to the (lack of a) woman’s space program were uncomfortably close to being accurate. After being hailed by Khrushchev as his daughter and proof that socialism was the only system in which women and men had equality, Tereshkova lived to see the USSR’s women’s space program dismantled and her own role changed to being a spokesperson for the destined role of women as mothers and wives. The U.S. did not even bother competing with the Soviet Union on that space race metric.

Fake documentaries call into question the definition of a documentary, authenticity, fake, mocumentary…. the list grows. In the end, I saw Finn’s work as an extension of the German cabaret tradition, or perhaps the medieval court jester, in which the “fool” makes the rest of us laugh with his silliness. But the entire point of being a court jester is to undertake a balancing act of making the court (or the film audience) realize that the fool has told us an uncomfortable truth, without resulting in the death of the messenger. As we laughed at Finn’s imaginary “Seagull,” we also were lamenting her only possibility of resurrection – as a fictitious character on the Big Screen. Tereshkova, after all, had hoped to go to space once again, even as an elderly woman, but was never a serious candidate for any country’s space program. Therein lies one truth of Interkosmos: Seagull was as much a figure of the public imagination as was a film caricature.