Socialist Puppet States with Strings – Not a Fairy Tale

Rolf Herricht with Colleague Marie Gold.

Rolf Herricht with Colleague Marie Gold.

Once upon a time, or rather 1955, after a few attempts in the first postwar years to make animation films in Babelsberg – whether silhouette, puppet, or what we think of as animation films – the DEFA Studio for Animation opened in Dresden. The film short A Fairy Tale Only (Nur ein Märchen, dir. Carl Schröder, 1963), perhaps better translated as “It’s Just a Fairy Tale,” is exemplary of the few puppet films made there, for children and, occasionally, adults.

The puppet film is saturated in irony. The famous actor Rolf Herricht narrates. He appears on an empty set, informing the audience that he has been asked to tell a fairy tale in the interest of education and national cultural heritage “and all that,” and presents his selection of “Mother Hulda” (“Frau Holle,” sometimes known as “Gold Marie and Pitch Marie” or “The Good Sister and the Bad Sister”). He explains his reasons for the selection: It is ideologically unproblematic and well-known, and has been appropriately updated for a contemporary audience.

Mother Hulda (Frau Holle) with Rolf Herricht in "It's Just a Fairy Tale."

Mother Hulda (Frau Holle) with Rolf Herricht in “It’s Just a Fairy Tale.”

He starts off with “Once upon a …no, let us say once upon now,” and introduces the characters, all hand puppets: First comes Mother Hulda, who has since earned an additional degree to better herself (referring to the numerous attempts to push women to take advantage of continuing education); then Gold Marie (“no need for further explanation,”), and the equally infamous Pitch Marie, whom he regards with a bit of disapproval. He hesitantly notes that the evil stepmother is a bad pedagogical role model, so we will forget her. The next shot is of the People’s Collective “Brothers Grimm,” where the forewoman Mother Hulda is delighted to employ two new workers “from the people” in order to fulfill her production quotas. Socialist hilarity ensues.

Colleague Marie Gold arrives to work early, bakes tasty loaves of bread, and picks all the apples just as they are becoming ripe using a “climbing machine” (a ladder). An ideal socialist woman-worker, it is not surprising that she receives her daily wages of golden talers from Forewoman Hulda.

Colleague Pitch Takes a Power Break.

Colleague Pitch Takes a Power Break.

Colleague Marie Pitch, on the other hand, shows up late and must powder her nose while the bread burns, lazes about so that the over-ripe apples are fit only for jelly, and leaves her workplace untidy when the whistle blows: “Quitting time!” she yells with glee.Colleague Pitch receives the same wages for her poorly-executed work.

Rolf Herricht falls out of character as a narrator and walks on-screen, asking Forewoman Hulda whether both young women had earned the same pay for unequal work. “Yes,” responds Forewoman Hulda, “exactly according to law.” Herricht complains that it is supposed to be different, that hard work is to be rewarded and laziness punished. The puppet Mother Hulda leans back to get a better look at Herricht’s face and says dryly, “Right, in fairy tales!” Herricht gapes and turns the audience, shrugging his shoulders – socialism is no fairy tale, not even when puppets are involved.

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.